Colson Whitehead to Deliver MLK Lecture

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote the critically acclaimed The Underground Railroad—called luminous, infuriating and wildly inventive by critics—will deliver the MLK address at Lehigh University next semester. Colson Whitehead’s talk, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Baker Hall. He will speak on “Revisiting the Underground Railroad.”

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a teenage slave who lived on a Georgia plantation in the mid-19th century before she escaped to seek her freedom. Along the way, she is dependent upon a network of both black and white activists who aided fleeing slaves in the decades prior to the Civil War.

Described by the New York Times as a “potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible cost of slavery,” the book enabled Whitehead to weave a compelling and sometimes inspiring human journey while graphically detailing a host of horrors that befell slaves: beatings, whippings, amputations, gang-rapes, lynchings and torture.

“In recounting Cora’s story,” the Times wrote, “Whitehead communicates the horrors of slavery and its toxic legacy rumbling on down the years….he has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.”

In addition to the Pulitzer, The Underground Railroad was the recipient of the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Heartland Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. Published in 2016, it was a Number 1 New York Times Bestseller, propelled in part by endorsements by Oprah Winfrey for her book club selection, and then-President Barack Obama, who selected it for his summer reading list. It was also named to the list of the Best Books of the Year by the Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, GQ, Publishers Weekly and Esquire. It has been translated into 40 languages and shared in book clubs around the world.

“We’re really fortunate and very excited to bring Colson Whitehead to campus,” said Jennifer Swann, professor of biological sciences, member of the MLK Committee and a tri-chair of Lehigh’s Council for Equity and Community (CEC). The MLK Committee and the CEC will join with the Friends of the Lehigh Libraries in supporting the lecture and book discussion groups on campus (see sidebar).

“The interesting thing is just how timely his work is,” she added. “While we tend to think of the Underground Railroad as something that happened in the past, it is actually occurring all around us as the policies on undocumented aliens continue to evolve. People are vanishing into Canada to escape deportation right now. This novel presents an opportunity for us to look at the reality that many have faced historically, and also provides a way for all of us to question not just what we would have done, but could do now to promote equality and justice.”

Swann said she is joining with others in championing reading and book discussion groups because Whitehead’s skillful writing “brings to life just how harrowing the experience can be. Seeing a situation from another person’s perspective is one of the main ways to heal divides.”

Extraordinary Critical Success

Born in 1969, raised in Manhattan and a graduate of Harvard, Whitehead started his career at the Village Voice, where he wrote reviews of television, books and music, according to his official bio.

He experienced early success with his first novel, The Intuitionist. A book about the Department of Elevator Inspectors, it was finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and the winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award.

The Intuitionist was followed by John Henry Days—an investigation of the folkloric steel-driving man—in 2001. Again, the work was met with high critical acclaim, earning a finalist spot on the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award and the Pulitzer. In 2003, Whitehead published a book of essays about his hometown city titled The Colossus of New York, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Later novels include Apex Hides the Hurt in 2006, which received the PEN/Oakland Award, and Sag Harbor in 2009, which was selected as a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. A New York Times bestselling novel about post-apocalyptic New York City titled Zone One was published in 2011, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker titled The Noble Hustle: Beef Jerky & Death, followed in 2014.

His reviews, essays, and fiction have appeared in a number of publications, such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper's and Granta.

Whitehead has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Dos Passos Prize, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

He has taught at the University of Houston, Columbia University, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, New York University, Princeton University, Wesleyan University, and been a Writer-in-Residence at Vassar College, the University of Richmond and the University of Wyoming.

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